The issue of the origins of human language has troubled language experts and historians for centuries. Some of them tried to come up with a proper, all-encompassing theory about this, but it almost never worked out. The myth of Babel is a nice tale but people always searched for a more practical explanation of the history of language. Some people went even a step further than simply telling tales. They were ready to carry out different experiments to figure out where language actually comes from.
Such experiments were based on an assumption that a complete isolation of a new-born would make it start speaking in the “original” language if such a thing exists. Even today many linguists believe in the existence of the universal grammar and constantly seek some evidence of it. Through history, people were taking some radical steps to determine the origin of language and discover whether it is an innate ability or something we learn from the society.
The following language experiments are the most famous ones, even though their historicity is doubtful.
Psamtik and his discovery
The first attempt of determining the origin of human language was documented in Herodotus’s Histories and relates to the Egyptian Pharaoh Psamtik I. Curious about the origin of language, he decided to isolate two infants from the human community and discover whether they’d be able to start talking without having any real language to imitate. The infants were sent to a shepherd whose task was to take care of them and listen to the first sounds they utter. After some time, the shepherd allegedly heard one of the babies cry “bekos” which was a Phrygian word for bread. This had led Pharaoh Psamtik to believe that the Phrygian race was older than the Egyptians and this is the single major conclusion he draws from this experiment.
Roman Emperor’s Forbidden Experiment
In the 13th century Rome, Holy Emperor Frederick II came up with the idea to have newborns raised without human interaction, believing that this way he’ll be able to learn more about the “natural language” – the one Adam and Eve supposedly spoke. Unfortunately, the experiment failed to cause the death of the babies and this has even become known as the Forbidden Experiment. There are assumptions that the experiment was later repeated multiple times.
Is language learned or innate?
James IV of Scotland also carried out a similar experiment in an attempt to demonstrate the ancient origins of his country. After he was done with the experiment, he went as far as saying that the children started talking Hebrew, but there was never an official account of this. Mughal emperor Akbar repeated this experiment but with a completely different goal. Namely, his intention was to prove that the speech is a result of hearing and that the children will remain mute. His experiment failed as well.
Clearly, all such attempts are harshly criticized for their maltreatment of human beings. They are known as language deprivation experiments as they require complete isolation from any human contact. However gruesome it is to sacrifice living beings for “scientific” reasons, these experiments point to the strength of human race’s wish to determine the origin of what is today a common notion to us. Moreover, it points to the “untamable” nature of language that doesn’t let us learn more about its origin. In the age of communications, where people can easily overcome the bridge between different cultures by traveling and learning foreign languages, this doesn’t seem to matter anymore. What matters is the fact that we are given a gift to learn other languages and this way cross geographical distances, as well as cultural differences.